Science & Politics part 1

May 10, 2009

Something I started on labourhome a while ago and will finish now, sligtly flinching at some of the lack of coherance in what I wrote now but here it is…

This, if permitted, should form the first of three articles on science and politics. They are not rants, although each discipline has intruded into the other’s territory with regularity to the point of the familiar. Neither are they pamphlets for one view only. I want to inform and I want to challenge. I want to take as many people along for the ride as I can. I want to look at ethics and science now, and then look at a totally new understanding of science within politics and then finally an utterly transformed approach to science policy.

I am a research Scientist in the field of experimental particle physics. Muon and neutrino physics, to be specific. By the third article that won’t sound obscure.

This first article will be a confession of sorts. I will state what a Scientist is not. I will not apologise as though ashamed for science or its contribution to economy and reason. However by considering what a Scientist is ‘not’ I am explicitely considering a negative. 

The confession is that (please bear with me here, I am going somewhere) Scientists love research. We love adding to knowledge. We will develop complex clarifications of models and extensions to theories, new technologies. However, if the complexity of these things has increased then it has been at the expense of vastly simplifying science in culture for our own ends. 

I am looked at as though a pillar of the community and that’s fine. Quite like port. But I’m looked at with deference and not just me. Scientists in general are, I believe, considered the modern witch doctors. Pillars of the community, their word goes unquestioned. We can have people repeat what we say like mantras. I’m not saying we’re evil, or that we’re not. It’s a lot of power for human beings.

Kevin Barron said:
“If medical science was telling us that we ought to…then maybe that’s something that we should do, but it should be driven by science and not driven by some of the debate that we heard last night.”

I have omitted the issue itself in an attempt to deviate discussion away from the bill in question. I am talking in much broader terms. Please do not see this as a discussion about that bill or an advocacy of a particular position, if you know what that bill was. 

He was referring to ethical debate. And here is my problem. Science won’t tell you anything. Science actually doesn’t have a mouth and it doesn’t understand language. It simply has no advice. Scientists have mouths, we sometimes understand language, we have varying opinions. Genuinely varying opinions. Do not ask science if it will be a substitute for debate or you will be utterly staggered by how right wing science can be. Yet I have heard labour put Scientists on a pedestal above activists, publicans, voters and plebs. On some issues that is ok. On any issue with an ethical component that makes me uncomfortable as a Scientist. 

Gallileo warned us to leave Scientists alone, or at the very least not arrest them. But we’ve gone too far the other way. Heidegger warned us that as technology increased debate would decrease. He foresaw a world from which we would seek to extract from faster and more efficiently, and humanity as a resource but believed that it was yet possible to have a ‘releasement towards things’ to say yes to some and no to others. To hold the conscience separate from the calculator.

I don’t want to be a witch doctor.

If you want to be a Heidegger then you will be considered mad or religious and to the detriment of culture you shalt be derided by the fundamentalist interleaving of science and state, just for disagreeing.

Still, its ok to have opinions – lets respect them (without being patronising!). It has to be democratic.


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